In this lesson, we will explore the availability heuristic and how it impacts the way we make decisions and come to conclusions.
Challenge your brain with some interesting examples and test your understanding with a quiz.
What is a Heuristic?
What is more likely to kill you, your dog or your couch?We all know that dogs can be dangerous, and it’s likely that you’ve heard stories of vicious dogs attacking humans. Naturally, the great majority of people would answer that dogs are more dangerous. Did you?In actuality, you are nearly 30 times more likely to die from falling off furniture in your own house than you are to be killed by a dog! This may seem unrealistic, but statistics show this is true.Take a look at these other hard-to-believe U.
- We are far more likely to be killed by hot tap water than a plane crash.
- Death from giving birth is more likely than death from accidental shooting.
- Alcohol poisoning is the cause of more deaths each year than being struck by lightning.
Even after reading those statistics, it is doubtful that we will become more frightened of our faucets than of getting on a plane. So why are we so likely to fear the more unlikely causes of death? Why are these statistics so difficult to believe? The answer lies in the way the human brain processes facts and makes decisions.
Our brains use methods and strategies to speed problem solving. A heuristic is simply a term for mental shortcuts we take when making judgments and choices. Most of the time these shortcuts serve us well in making decisions more quickly. Weighing out all the possible answers to any question or problem would take far too much time. A heuristic is a shortcut our brains use to make decision making easier. Without heuristics we would spend all our time judging a decision, leaving little time to act.
The Availability Heuristic
The availability heuristic is one of these mental shortcuts often used by the brain.
The availability heuristic judges the probability of events by how quickly and easily examples can come to mind. We make decisions based on the knowledge that is readily available in our minds rather than examining all the alternatives. Most of the time our brains use the availability heuristic without us even realizing it. Often this gives our brains the quick shortcut to the answer we need, and in many cases, the judgments are accurate.However, as with any shortcut, sometimes the availability heuristic can lead us to make mistakes. Some events are easier to recall than others, not because they are more common but because they stand out in our minds.
This is especially true with sensational headlines related to injury or fatality, as mentioned in the statistics. There are many reasons that certain events stand out in our minds more than others. The following are a few of the more common reasons.
Drama and Media Exposure
Although a dull, unexciting event may be more common, vivid and more dramatic events come to mind more easily. For example, illnesses such as diabetes and stomach cancer kill more than twice the number of Americans than murder or car accidents.
However, people see murder or car accidents as more dangerous and take more precautions against them. Murders and car accidents are very sensational and appealing to media reporters. Because of this, these types of deaths are reported more often in the media and are easier to remember.
The media publishes the most dramatic events because they are more vivid and exciting. An otherwise rare event can seem very likely when it is on the front page of every newspaper, magazine and news website.
Recent and Frequent Events
Similar to dramatic events, recent events are easier for the brain to remember. Recent events are easier to call to mind than older events that may have been forgotten. Events that are heard about more frequently are also easier to remember, regardless of whether or not they actually happen more frequently.
One example of this can be seen with the tragedies of September 11th, 2001. Americans are more likely to fear an airplane hijacking because of those recent terrorist attacks, even though this is a highly unlikely event. The events of September 11th are also a great example of highly dramatic events.
Emotion of Personal Events
If an event has personal significance, it will be easier to recall.
Personal attachment to an event makes the event more memorable. Events that cause us to feel emotions are harder to forget and come to mind much easier than events that leave us indifferent. Let’s look at an example. A close friend mentions how terrible their ‘brand ABC’ car is. The friend tells a story about how the car broke down and left her stranded twice. It is easy to sympathize with your friend’s car troubles. When later shopping for a car, it is more likely that you will pass up on the ‘brand ABC’ dealership and head to the ‘brand XYZ’ dealership next door, regardless of whether or not brand XYZ is more reliable.
Easy-to-Imagine and Difficult-to-Imagine Events
Psychological studies show that events that are easy for us to imagine are also seen as more likely. The reverse is also true. Events that are difficult or even impossible for us to imagine seem less likely. Psychologists have done many studies with word recall and the availability heuristic. When asked whether there are more words that start with the letter ‘r’ or more words that have ‘r’ as the third letter, nearly all participants answer that more words start with ‘r’.
Although there are about twice as many words that have ‘r’ as the third letter, it is far easier to visualize, imagine and recall words that start with the letter ‘r’.
Let’s review the availability heuristic with another vivid example. Remember, it teaches us that we make decisions based on the knowledge that is readily available in our minds rather than examining all the alternatives.Shark attacks are a very dramatic and terrifying possibility.
An event as dramatic and emotional as reported death from a shark attack is hard to forget. The famous movie Jaws has made shark attacks a media sensation, causing us to imagine these events as more possible than they really are. The media is also far more likely to report horrific shark attacks due to the drama. We have learned that the availability heuristic is a very influential shortcut in our decision-making process. But how influential is it? How common is it to die from a shark attack? Although our brains may assume otherwise, a person is about three times more likely to be crushed to death by a vending machine than to be killed by a shark! Next time you are near the ocean, remember the availability heuristic.
After you have finished with this lesson, you’ll be able to:
- Define heuristic
- Describe the availability heuristic
- Recall reasons why some events stand out in people’s minds more than others
- Explain an example of the availability heuristic